Only in Florida: Battle over water, free speech pits billionaire vs. activist

Tampa Bay Times by Craig Pittman

May 10, 2018

This is a story about free speech, government secrecy and a fight over tens of millions in taxpayer funds. The players include a billionaire who once had a hit man kill his horse, two politicians charged with breaking the Sunshine Law and former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno’s sister.

But the most important aspect of this story is about Florida’s water supply and how a lawsuit involving a company called Lake Point Restoration may upend a fundamental rule about Florida water — namely, that water belongs to the public, not wealthy businessmen.

One of the participants contends that what happened in that years-long suit will open the door for big companies to jump into the water business, driving up prices and starving the environment. Sugar companies, citrus growers and phosphate miners could start commandeering the water on their land and selling it.

Right now, Florida law says fresh water is “a public resource benefiting the entire state,” not just big corporations and their owners, said Cynthia Barnett, Environmental Fellow in Residence at the University of Florida’s Bob Graham Center for Public Service and the author of three books on water policy. The law also says water “must be managed in a manner to ensure its sustainability.”

No one is allowed to sell water he or she happens to find, not without proving to state officials that doing so is in the public interest, she said.

But that, say water experts, may be changing, thanks in part to this case.

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